The two sides of Linford Christie

On Monday he broke down on television (above) and said he would not defend the Olympic title he won in Barcelona (right). But, as Mike Rowbottom discovered, Britain's greatest athlete remains passionately devoted to his sport
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The Independent Online
It is early evening at the Crystal Palace stadium. Rain drifts down, as it has done intermittently for most of the day. The scant crowd drawn by the afternoon's British League athletics meeting has dispersed into south London. And at the bottom of the main stand, two old friends - Kermit Bentham and Linford Christie - are curling up with laughter as they recollect Crazy Training Sessions They Have Known.

The pair competed together in English Schools meetings. Twenty years on, one is a respected club athlete and the other is the greatest sprinter in the world. At this moment they are killing themselves over what they did to their clubmate Gary Telfer's shoes (hid them) and running kit (tied it in knots).

"Do you remember," says Christie, his voice wobbling with hilarity, "he just couldn't work out how to..." Past words, he mimes a man struggling vainly with an outsized bundle.

Just over an hour earlier, running for Thames Valley Harriers, the Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth champion had lost his second 200 metres race within the space of three days. And yet - apart from the vexed problem of media relations - Christie was utterly at ease.

Here was a champion on home territory - relaxed among familiar faces; meeting and greeting awed well-wishers; posing compliantly for pictures; bantering with his fellow athletes; enjoying the basic rituals of a sport which he patently loves.

A week and a bit later, a wider public is witnessing another Christie, a man patently under stress, apparently being forced away from that same sport.

The ever-present pressure of being the world's No 1 has been compounded by his ongoing disagreement with the British Athletic Federation over what he should be paid for this season's appearances. His perception of the media as a largely malign, destructive force has sharpened after some of the reports of his defeats at 100 and 200 metres in Rome last Thursday. And the unexplained delay by the federation in naming him immediately as captain of the British team contesting the Europa Cup later this month has provided another unsettling element.

Christie has never sought to defend the actions which contributed to last year's sacking of Andy Norman as the BAF's promotions officer. But Norman was a man with whom, over many years, Christie felt able to do business, a man from whom he felt able to get an immediate answer, even if it was often a blunt one.

His relationship with Norman's effective successor, Ian Stewart, and the executive chairman, Peter Radford, is far from comfortable. Rightly or wrongly, he feels he is being unfairly singled out in being offered a deal which he says is worth less than that offered him last year.

On Monday Christie said he would not run the first of the British televised meetings, with the clear implication that other appearances were in jeopardy unless he and the federation could come to agreement. Later he broke down briefly in front of the studio audience for Carlton TV's Sport in Question programme, and said he could not face going on beyond this season to defend his Olympic title in Atlanta. "I just can't take any more," he said. "You are not just fighting the American athletes, you have got to fight inside your own camp as well."

Patrick Collins, the highly respected sports journalist who sat alongside Christie on Monday's TV panel, shook his head with bemusement at times as Christie complained about the way he has been portrayed in the media. He tried to put the reasonable points that Christie's press has been far from uniformly bad, and that not all coverage was the same.

But reasonableness is not the essential factor here. Christie is an emotional and spontaneous character. Pride is an essential part of the man, a fiercely guarded quality which has made him what he is. And for all he has achieved, there is an insecurity about Christie that makes him particularly vulnerable to slights real or imagined.

Just as the word "culture" caused Hanns Johst to release the safety catch on his revolver, so Christie's phrase "you guys" is the signal for Britain's sporting journalists to look to their own safety.

Sitting in the Crystal Palace warm-up area the weekend before last amid dusty pot plants and Sports Council notices disclaiming liability for items lost or stolen, he recalled, for instance, reading a report of one of his defeats last season which described him being beaten by "younger, stronger men". Was that, one ventured, a description of his race in Vienna? "Lille," he replies straight away. "I tell you, that was a painful thing to read."

One of the most damaging aspects of adverse media attention becomes apparent to him when he talks to young people. "I see young kids on the streets, doing things they ought not to do, and I stop and say to them: 'Why don't you get down to the track?' And they say: 'You can't tell us anything. We've read all about you'."

As far as they are concerned, Christie feels, the image they have of him has been shaped by media tittilation over the contents of his shorts, the drug innuendo about how a man of 35 can perform as he does. The supposedly humorous references to "Linford's lunchbox" are anything but amusing to Christie himself. "It's sexual harassment," he said. "We do not think it's funny."

Christie has always defended himself vigorously against allegations that he has taken performance-enhancing drugs. "I am as clean as they come," he says, adding that he has already been tested four times this month at no notice. He is incredulous at the International Amateur Athletic Federation's proposals to reduce the suspension for serious drug abuse from four to two years in order to fit in with the International Olympic Committee and avoid costly civil litigation in several countries.

"I just don't agree with that," he said. "If they cut life for murder to six weeks then more people are going to get killed."

If any further proof of the vehemence of Christie's beliefs on the subject was required, it came in bizarre fashion shortly before he left the Crystal Palace stadium when a bulky, track-suited figure made his way around the infield and away to the exit. It was Paul Edwards, the shot putter banned for four years last summer after his urine sample showed up a cocktail of illegal drugs including steroids.

"Look at that bastard," Christie yelled, standing up against the trackside advertising board. "How has he got the nerve to show his face after what he's done?" His eyes blazed. If that outrage was acting, he should make a space in his trophy cabinet for an Oscar.

Christie, who has never said he would definitely defend his Olympic title, threatened to quit the sport in 1991 after a European best time of 9.92sec failed to secure him a medal at the Tokyo world championships. Public support caused him to reconsider on that occasion; it may well have the same effect this time, particularly if he retains his world title in Gothenburg.

But however it turns out, he is now struggling to reconcile two contending impulses: the urge to free himself from pressures he clearly finds intolerable, and the urge to remain in touch with a sport which offers him cameraderie and deeply satisfying toil.

He has said more than once that although he is 35, he doesn't feel different from when he was 25. His training sessions with colleagues like Bentham and Lenny Paul have always been characterised by a kind of timeless playfulness. "We do childish things," Bentham said as the south London skies began to clear. "That's what helps us stay young."

There is a child-like quality to Christie. He can be sunny, he can be a spoilt kid. But in his basic approach to his sport he has, thus far, retained the freshness of youth.

Asking him why he trains and runs year after year is like enquiring why a seal swims. He seems surprised that you should ask. For Christie, the endless routine of lifting weights, practising starts and correcting his technique is a natural process.

"I do it because I enjoy it," he said. "I actually enjoy what I am doing." You believe him; which makes his torment this week all the more painful to witness.

As other athletes warmed up around him at Crystal Palace, he raged against the media's obsession with his age and impending retirement.

"Appreciate me for what I am doing," he said. "It's no use celebrating me when I'm dead. Quote from the Bible: 'Young men I call upon you because you are strong'."

At this point, aptly enough, the figure of Christie's long-time coach, Ron Roddan, strode into the echoing hall, his orange baseball cap dark with rain. Thames Valley Harriers were calling once again upon their own champion after his 100 metres win. But the question was, should it be for the 200 metres or the sprint relay?

"Do you want to do the two?" Roddan asked.

"I've got to train tomorrow..."

"Do you need it?"

"No, I don't need it. But if you want me to do it, you're the coach... how many points have we got?"

"I think it would be best if you do the 200," Roddan says.

"Okay."

As Roddan walks over to another group of athletes, the rain outside redoubles. And Christie, the lion turned lamb, returns with characteristic perversity to the subject of his retirement. "If someone beats me and I feel there is no chance of getting back I will go," he said. "Even if it is in the middle of the season. I will not stay to get smashed about.

"But I'll probably quit because I've got to the point where I feel that some people are pushing me out of the sport. It's not that I don't feel capable of doing it any more. I honestly believe I could still go on for another three or four years."

To soften the blow when it eventually comes, he says he will continue to train with friends such as Colin Jackson and Frankie Fredericks even though he will not be competing - "maybe not with the same track intensity, but I will still run and lift my weights."

Four defeats in his opening five races this season constitutes a start that is far from ideal for him. But he has missed training with a toe injury for which he still requires painkilling injections, and his times now are relatively better than they were at the same stage in 1993, when he ended up world champion.

His 100 metres defeat in Rome, where he ran 10.15sec, came at the hands of Davidson Ezinwa, a Nigerian based in the United States who, like all US college athletes, is obliged to be at a peak right now to cope with the early NCAA season.

"If I go out and beat these guys first time out it's either because they are useless or because something's wrong," Christie said. "It does take a bit longer to get yourself motivated as you get older. They don't give out gold medals for winning the Rome grand prix. But I have got until August. At the end of the day I'm going to go out there and I truly believe I am going to win the world championships again.

"It's all about peaking, and there is nobody out there who is better at that than me. My record shows it. Sometimes I am beaten in one-off races. But when it comes to championships, round-by-round, I am stronger than they are. I train six days a week. You can always be stronger. Sometimes I'm very tired when I go to the line. But mentally you've got to get the other guys to think that you are The Man. And that's what I am."

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